John Cale was the reason why we went to Raleigh two weekends ago to attend the Hopscotch Festival. That Pere Ubu were playing the night before was deemed a plus. Those two acts would drive that whole bus, as we had no interest in seeing any other acts. The first time I saw Cale, in 1985 at a dive called Sleep Out Louie’s in Orlando, Florida was one of the more unique shows I’d ever seen. I went just to see who this guy was as I’d not heard any of his music at the time. Cale was a mess. Solo, he vacillated between guitar and piano with no other accompaniment. Guitar was hopeless, but there remained enough muscle memory for him to barely eke out the tunes on the upright. It certainly was an unforgettable gig and I heard years later that Maureen Tucker had been there in the audience.
After that incident, I didn’t seek out Cale music, but I had some of his collaborative albums, and my wife liked what she heard enough to buy a copy of “Fear” used at the CD Warehouse. Wow! This was incredible music, so we hopped on the Cale train in earnest moving forward. When Cale appeared in Asheville for his “Hobosapiens” US tour in 2004, we attended. About 48 other citizens of Asheville joined us in the Orange Peel which comfortable held 1000 at the time. That didn’t deter Cale from giving one of the best shows we had ever seen and heard! At that point, he could do no wrong.
Which brings us to the Hopscotch gig almost a decade later. After seeing Pere Ubu in a small club the night before, it was nice to see Cale performing in the Memorial Auditorium with seats in a hall big enough to hold several thousand. He began the show with “Hedda Gabler” from the “Animal Justice” EP! But there was something wrong from the very start. The drummer’s bass drum was mixed to be searingly hot and loud. It obliterated the music surrounding it. It sounded aggressive and metallic and more importantly, with each hit of the drum, we could feel our internal organs flinching. It was TOO DAMN LOUD! Waaaaay too damn loud!! Though we had earplugs installed, they did nothing to protect our bodies from the onslaught. And an onslaught it was.
The most peculiar thing about the mix was that nothing else was that loud in it. The music being performed most definitely did not sport the take no prisoners vibe of “Sabotage [Live].” Cale wasn’t screaming. His guitarist, Dustin Boyer was doing some elegant, finessed work, but everything but that bass drum was lost in the soundstage. And it didn’t help that all of the material played had a similar vibe. Mid-tempo, yet with staggeringly loud bass drum. He performed “Hemmingway” and the excellent Scotland Yard” from his tight new album but the spark wasn’t there. My wife opined that he was “phoning it in,” and I have to say the thought had also occurred to me.
The setlist did not begin to display the breadth and drive of the last show at all, and the seeming indifference of the artiste, coupled with the harsh and painful mix conspired to make us take leave of the auditorium at what seems to have been the halfway point in the proceedings according to this helpful website. I could hardly believe that we were walking out on John Cale, and yet, having been there, I could have not done otherwise. We were not being engaged and worse, the sound mix was actively repellent.
Should you see John Cale live? I can’t say “don’t” because there is a chance that he could sound a lot better in a different venue. Was he preoccupied with other doings? Perhaps. I don’t recall him really connecting with the audience in 2004, small as we were, but he sure as hell connected with his music! It was amazing. My advice? If he’s in your town, and you’re inclined, then go. You can always vote with your feet after the show starts. But I would not expend this considerable amount of time, money [$250 for 3-day wristbands for my wife and I] and effort to see John Cale again. In town? I’d give him a shot. Thank goodness for Pere Ubu the night before! They made the whole layout worth while.
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